Vacation, Day One.

26 Sep

I pass a coffeeshop every morning on my walk to the bus stop. Almost every morning, I think “what would it be like to just get this far? Drink a coffee, sit down and write for a few hours…”

This morning, I dressed up for our newly re-Seattle-ified weather (i.e., rain) in my new rust-orange raincoat and red-with-white-polka-dots rainboots.

I got to the coffeeshop, and went inside. It was warm, but not too warm. I ordered a rice-milk mocha, sat down with my computer, and read the first chapters of a fellow author’s work to provide feedback. I had promised to do so more than a month ago, and this morning, day one of my first vacation in more than a year, I did it.

Now I’m back home, thinking about what delicious breakfast to make.

Not a bad start. Not a bad start at all.

Transitive vs. Intransitive Verbs

14 Jun

AKA “Verbs in Transit”
Verbs in Transit

I think I just figured out agency (Dammit.)

6 May

Thanks to the obituaries for Joanna Russ, I’m getting an education in female roles – both in genre fiction and in life.

I may be slow, but I’m on my way up.

I’m working through some sticky issues of agency and point of view in my long-languishing novel-in-progress. I had started the novel – with outline, plot sketch, etc. – with a strong female character: a woman in her 50s who survived a multiple-collapse apocalyptic event 30 years prior. In the first scene, she shoots an 18 year old male in the leg… and doesn’t make a non-reactionary move the rest of the book. Ugh.

Ugh, I say again, because I am so strongly reminded that I was older than 30 when I first took agency in my romantic life. Relationships were things that happened to me, before that – I fell in love, and it was always a surprise, ’cause wasn’t it supposed to be? When the relationships weren’t right (and they weren’t right) I clung to them anyway. Who knew when the next would happen to me?

The rest of my life had to fall apart catastrophically before I woke up. I took a look at the mediocre relationship I had been nursing along, and suddenly realized: I was worth more than that. My time was worth too much to spend any more of it there, and there were more valuable things I could do. I called up the other person, and broke it off. I made the choice, and took action. And there it is: agency.
In Gathering Grace, there are two strong female leads: the superhero and the supervillian, both women in their 60s. Both show agency, thankfully – but you know who’s better at it? The one doing evil. [SPOILER (highlight to read): She starts to show less agency when she starts to be a little less evil. Dammit.]

For me, this relates to the difference between being nice and being kind. Nice is passive, even when it’s active – no boats are rocked. Kind is a choice, an act – even when it’s the choice to not act. Good females of any age, I learned in EVERY media source, were always “nice” – even if the result was misery.

As an author, am I contributing to this ludicrous poison?

Consider the consequence – do I take the complete-draft 120,000-word novel back from the boy?

It means a MAJOR fricken’ rewrite.

I think I have to. As the author, it’s time for me to get some damn agency, myself. I throw the rocks at the characters – but even my females – maybe especially my females – better have the grit and presence to dodge or bat them right back. If I had a strong sense of agency when I started it, 2.5 years ago (already?!?), I never would have let the boy run with the book. The central female character needs to make choices and drive her own motivation forward.

Other writers – do you have this same problem? Advice and encouragement are appreciated! I may be getting better at taking charge and driving forward, myself – but it’s more pleasant to do with others.

Disaster, fear, and doing what I can

21 Apr

Catastrophic, life-mangling change didn’t become real to me until my foster family was broken apart by a false accusation.

Six years later, I feel the aftershocks of the helplessness I felt then. It’s been triggered in the past couple of months with local uncertainties and tragedies: deaths, cancer diagnoses, and looking for new employment. Uncertainty and powerlessness are thick as the pollen in the air.

I can either be despondent – retreat from the world – or I can be motivated to do what I can.

Today, on the blog of a friend who is going through a very difficult year, I started to write how my 4 year old daughter looked at me, her mouth open, cheeks dripping from tears, when I had to explain that she wouldn’t live with me anymore.

I was supposed to be the big strong mommy who could do anything. I let her down.

When the state showed up in a big state van to take her and her siblings away, I met with the social worker, and gave them the information I collected together to make sure their next parents got the best start they could.

My face hurt from not crying, and my chest burned where I refused it sobbing.

Her brother and sisters were already on the van, and she loitered to be the last one I hugged. She spread her hands, open and empty, and said she had nothing to give me, and she cried. She squatted down next to the driveway where we put the garbage cans once a week, and picked up a rock.

It was a present for me, she said, and she put it in my hand. A present so I wouldn’t forget her.

That little stone – black, with spraypaint on one side – reminds me not only of her, but of her continued helplessness inside the foster care system. As of this writing, she should be 10 years old.

So what do I have power over? What can I help?

When I am afraid, I can write in my blog about using fear as motivation – motivation to take control over the healthiest things I do.

I can also write stories. When I write garbage, I can edit. When I am rejected, I can resubmit.

When I’m tired of writing, these days I can knit, sculpt, search for a new job, make dinner, and go to bed.

Sometimes, every once in a while, I even bake cake.

Translation Tips for Writers (AKA: How not to be a jerk online.)

14 Apr
If you want to say: Instead, say:
F*ck you. Thank you.
What kind of idiot are you? Nobody could get that out of what I wrote. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
I can’t believe you wrote that on the INTERNET, where everybody can read it! Take it down right now, or I’ll sue! I’m glad you shared your perspective with me.
Just because YOU had a difficult childhood doesn’t mean MY character did – you’re reading into it. I appreciate your insight.
You don’t deserve to read my stories. I’m grateful you took the time and energy to share your opinion.
F*ck you and all of your agent and editor friends. You’re all in it together – a closed club. I hope I can resubmit/come to you for feedback again.
I have never read something so MEAN as what you said about my work! Your candor is refreshing.
I can’t even figure out what you meant in your comments. Learn to write! I will consider carefully what you said.
You’re so f*cking nit-picky. The specifics you pointed out are helpful.

Internal Communications: Strategic support of organizational change

14 Apr

In this part 3 of a 4-part series on internal communications, I’m discussing how communications can be used strategically – not just haphazardly, or after the fact – to support positive organizational change.

Every organization goes through periods of change – either that, or they die. Sometimes the changes are massive, affecting the daily work of hundreds or thousands; other times, the changes seem major at the top, but most folks just continue what they are doing.

In times of organizational change, internal communications always has three strategic moves, and sometimes four:

1. Show an apparent need for change

Clearly, this is the “sometimes” step. We don’t always know when change is coming, and it’s not always appropriate that everyone know.

When it is possible, report the reasons for change. When leadership is considering changes, surface the less-positive news. Let the people know that there are pain points, and that the leadership is aware and willing to take on the problem. Now, I’m not saying that communicators should be out there announcing potential plans before they are ripe, stirring the bees’ nest and bringing work to a standstill.

If you have a culture of transparency and open communications, then this already happens. An indicator of open communications is when people feel free to discuss the shortcomings of the product they work on. If people are empowered to point out flaws, even when they don’t know how to improve it, then an internal communications functionary doesn’t need to help with this step.

For groups with a culture of we-don’t-discuss-the-dirty-laundry: If there is some reason to make a change, then that reason is often not a secret from the people doing the work. Perhaps there are competitors closing in, or a change in the landscape such that the work must be divided differently. Perhaps it is an organization of 1000 people within a company of 10,000 – and the winds of change are already blowing through the other groups.

2. Coordinate messages among leaders for consistent, trustworthy announcements

Employees will compare the message of their top leader (president, CEO, vice-president) to the message of their own supervisor. If those two don’t match, employee confidence – and therefore work – suffers.

Unless the group is very tiny, there are multiple leaders. Before a change announcement is made generally, ensure that the leaders – people managers, peer leadership, and decision makers – are on the same page. A pre-announcement or meeting, led by the top decision maker, can go a long way to ensuring that the right change messages reach deep into the organization.

In groups where multiple leaders are making announcements, it is imperative that their messages speak to the same reasons for change. A communications or HR professional can be invaluable here, holding the messages side-by-side to suggest edits to these complex communications. They can work directly with leadership to ensure that the tone is appropriate to the change, and that the right level of information is surfaced.

Timing can be another consideration: especially when a cascade of emails is appropriate, someone needs to coordinate and inform the leaders about who sends what to whom, and when. If the organization’s email distribution list is several hundred people deep, then it will take some time before everyone is informed. Smaller group emails shouldn’t be sent until the major announcement propagates through the system.

3. Illustrate the change in multiple modalities

The change may be to the organizational hierarchy, may be to the product being made, or to the geography of the company. Whatever the change, prepare to articulate it internally:

  • Visually, in diagrams or pictures. If possible, animating the change is particularly effective to demonstrate the change from what-has-been to what-will-be
  • As a face-to-face speech or presentation, given by the most senior leadership affected or available
  • Written, as in an email or whitepaper, to give all the details
  • Scattershot, as question-and-answer
  • Cheat-sheets for managers: what will their people need throughout the change process?

All of these should be prepared ahead of time to underscore the same core reasons for change: the point is to build trust through transparent, consistent communication. Each of them can (and will) evolve as the change is announced – but planning ahead will free up communicators’ cycles to handle additional needs that may come out of major announcements.

4. Measure and promote success of the new normal as it evolves

Once change has happened, how does anyone know that it was the right decision? The most irritating changes are the capricious ones that seem to require more work, with little to no payoff.

Plan in advance to collect data on how the goals of the change are being met, and/or how people are adjusting to those changes. Early in the communications and announcement process, set some people-oriented goals, and decide how to collect data and feedback. Open channels for communication, and remind people to use them.

Also plan to communicate the successes – and the pain points – back to the organization. Point out what the changes have made possible, and how the goals are being met. If additional changes had to be made, leaders should address them openly and honestly in email, articles or blogs, or in meetings. Regular communication to people managers can be used to keep the whole organization apprised of progress.

Internal Communications: Connecting Employee Work to Mission

6 Apr

(This post is the 2nd of 4 in a series about my professional life in internal communications. Click here for the first in the series.)

Employees can only be successful if their work aligns with the problems to be solved: the mission, vision, and strategies the company is banking on.

But how do those employees get a clear sense of mission in an enormous company? There may be a dozen branches in the hierarchy between the employee making the product and the CxO setting direction.

Professional internal communications can help meet four process needs:

1. Clear sense of problem to be solved

Sometimes, there’s a mission statement that feels like a pile of adjectives – too “businessy” to be understood. A talented internal comms person can facilitate the leadership process of articulating the right message – and then work to publicize, explain, and repeat the message until everyone understands.

But just repeating doesn’t cover the bases. External messaging and customer feedback need to be connected to the divisional priorities and daily work of the employee. Communications can help managers bridge the gap, enabling mission-focus even in the midst of the information whirlpool.

By creating clarity around the mission, vision and strategy, employee engagement is increased and managers are more effective.

2. Strong collaboration and cooperation

Great meetings are the ones in which everyone comes away with a new understanding, a new decision, or a new direction. Professional support can not only facilitate individual meetings toward greater success, but study series of meetings for effectiveness – and make suggestions for improvement.

If work groups are formed around initiatives (i.e., creating “virtual teams” that work across functions), the initiative s are more easily publicized and promoted in communications that already reach across functions. The initiatives gain greater visibility and have greater business impact.

3. Expectation of excellence

Sometimes everything is wonderful: the sun is shining on the business, the customers are happy, the money is flowing, the employees are satisfied with the product. It is vital to celebrate these times, to publicize and communicate the good news, so that employees remember what it is like when their excellence has resulted in success.

At other times, the conditions are not so favorable – but it is rarely the fault of the line employee. More often,something in the market, the business, or the decision-making tree has changed – and the business is making changes to respond.

Bad times require communication even more. When changes are made to the plan of record, employees need to know that the changes are to make a better, more appropriate product. Everyone should be on board with wanting the company to succeed – how leadership chooses to get there needs to be clear to  every employee.

Communication toward excellence should drive better engineering, better manufacturing, better processes. At the same time, leadership should encourage “brutal honesty” in scorecarding and customer satisfaction processes – because all of these analyses should only serve to make the product better.

4. Confidence in Leadership

The larger the corporation gets, the farther the employee is from the decision maker, the head of the line, the driver of the bus. Employees at the bottom of the hierarchy are doing the majority of the work: if they don’t have confidence in the leader, they won’t have confidence in their own work, and the quality of the product suffers.

Communications can help by establishing a baseline infrastructure for messages to travel up, down and across the hierarchy. This infrastructure can carry the internal identity through branding, giving employees a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. By communicating honestly and on a regular rhythm, leaders are seen as trustworthy, with transparent and laudable motives.

Taking a Resume Risk

5 Apr

With my diversity of experience, I’m unlikely to be hired by anyone with the “I want a zombie who has done THIS JOB for at least 5 years already” mentality. So I have decided not to worry about autobot recruiters, beyond ensuring that I’m using the right keywords in both my resume and cover letter.

Optimizing for what I do excel at – flexible, accurate, brief and impactful information presentation – ought to win me a few points on the job market playing field.

My new, improved resume starts with an info-graphic – in this case, a fancy chart.

Torrey's resume infographicThe on left hand side and across the top are the sweet spots found in eyeball-tracking usability studies. So that’s where the juiciest data lives: experience keywords, years of experience, and companies worked for.

I’ll admit – it took some effort to get right. The first iteration of the chart didn’t include a key. After some usability testing (“hey, tell me what you think this means?”) I found out that it needed both color and a key. Since I’ve added that, the response has been immediately positive.

Sure, it’s a risk to have a resume that steps outside the norm. But I’m already outside the norm – the greatest risk I can take is to not be me.

Disagree? Suggestions? I’m all ears.

Internal Corporate Communications: Why?

2 Apr

(I’m experimentally expanding the content on this blog to include my communications work. If you like it or hate it, please leave feedback! This was originally posted on my corporate intranet.)

Most of us have been communicating meaningfully since we were small  children. Why would anyone pay me for internal communication?

I’ll answer that with a question: Why do we pay accountants, when most of us can read rules and do basic math?

The answer is straightforward: because it’s good for business.

  • When employees know their work aligns to mission, they put in 31% more discretionary effort.
  • When communications around organizational change demonstrate information sharing and integrity, employees put in 29% more effort
  • When new hires believe their job is valued by the organization, they put in 22% more effort – and are less likely to leave the company. (From “Change Management: Case for Action and Manager’s Toolkit” from Corporate Leadership Council 2004 Employee Engagement Framework and Survey

The bottom line: When employees are eager to try harder – without “please-you-have-to-work-this-weekend” begs from management – companies show higher returns to shareholders: 47% higher over five years. (From 2007/2008  Communication ROI Study, Watson Wyatt.)

To capitalize on these effects, internal communications efforts start by focusing on three strategies:

  1. Connect employee work to clear mission, vision and strategy
  2. Support organizational change with clear and timely information, and multidirectional communications (up, down, and across the new hierarchy)
  3. Show importance of new employees roles to leadership, peers, managers

Over the next four posts in this series, I’ll outline how the first step I took was to create an infrastructure, then dive deep into executing each of the three strategies.

Making: from Manic to Mature (and now with Marionettes!)

27 Mar

Since I was old enough to read and write, I’ve gone from one creative pursuit to the next. I have competence in a variety of media, from batik to welding, knitting to writing.

I used to JUMP IN AND GO ZOOM! to any every project that came to mind. I could MAKE LOTS OF STUFF!  but often IT WAS CRAP!

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The skills acquired since becoming a grown-up have improved all the others:

  • Planning ahead for setbacks, polishing, delivery methods.
  • Revising – and revising, and revising, and throwing-it-out-and-starting-over.
  • Seeking and using feedback.

So now, when I tell you that I’m working on making a tiny bronze marionette that lives in a top hat and connects to a black opera glove, you can rest assured that I’ve planned several test pieces, iterations and have made proofs-of-concept (see picture – Sculpey is cheaper than bronze metal clay.)

And it’s likely to be full of awesome.